An entrepreneur who is also the reigning Miss Pittsburgh is selling a product that she says could revolutionize sexual assault prosecutions: at-home rape kits.
But some states have banned the kits, and some legal experts said the kits could make rape cases harder to prosecute.
Rape victims seeking justice typically go to a hospital to get a forensic exam, But Madison Campbell, 28, the CEO and founder of Leda Health, said most victims never take that step. Campbell, who was crowned Miss Pittsburgh last year, said she understands why.
“I myself was a sexual assault survivor, and I did not get a rape kit done within a hospital setting. I was too scared. I didn’t want anyone to touch me,” Campbell said.
Campbell was 23 when she started the company now known as Leda Health. She has raised nearly US$10 million for the company to produce do-it-yourself rape kits. Last year, she moved the company from New York to Pittsburgh. She was also crowned Miss Pittsburgh.
The kits allow victims to take their own DNA sample with a swab and then send it to a lab in Florida.
“While going to a hospital is certainly a gold standard of care, we have to acknowledge the fact that the majority of survivors will never get to the hospital. And so, something is better than nothing. And we believe that this is a healthy start for survivors,” Campbell said.
But Leda – formerly known as MeToo Kits – has been blocked from selling rape kits in multiple states.
Legislatures in New Hampshire and Washington state voted to ban the kits. Attorneys general in Michigan, New York, Oklahoma, Virginia and North Carolina issued cease-and-desist orders or warnings to the company.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said Campbell’s company “misleads victims into thinking that they are collecting all the evidence that could be collected from the assault.”
In December, a Maryland legislative committee found that “commercially manufactured self-collected sexual assault kits are inadequate, not a replacement for a forensic medical exam, and have potential to give victims a false sense that self-collected evidence can be utilized for criminal prosecution.”
Asked about the criticism, Campbell said, “Nothing that has ever been done that is new is never fraught — you know, it’s fraught with controversy.”
As for the actions banning at-home rape kits, Campbell said, “We will 100 per cent be fighting that because I believe that it is wrong that we are taking resources away from survivors, and I believe survivors’ voices need to be heard.”
Wendy Murphy, a former sex crimes prosecutor and professor at New England School of Law, said the at-home kits could improve rape prosecutions.
“There’s no legal basis for saying categorically the fact that a woman gathers her own evidence from her body is somehow, per se, not reliable enough to be admitted in a court of law. That’s just wrong. It’s just flat-out false,” said Murphy, who is working with Leda Health.
Allegheny County Medical Examiner Dr. Karl Williams said he questions whether at-home rape kits could be used in court.
“You can’t take anything into court unless it’s validated, done by a laboratory or some validated technology, so it doesn’t do you any good to have a rape test, even if it was 100 per cent, if you can’t take it into court,” Williams said.
Saint Vincent College law professor Bruce Antkowiak said even if the kits were admitted into court, defense attorneys would quickly point out that they do not meet standards set by the state Health Department.
“It just creates so many evidentiary problems that I would expect prosecutors from across the state will have very serious problems with allowing home rape kits to be marketed in the commonwealth,” Antkowiak said.
Spokespersons for Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Henry and Allegheny County District Attorney Steven Zappala declined to comment on at-home rape kits. Campbell was in attendance when the prosecutors held a joint news conference last week.
Concern about the kits is not just based on legal issues.
“Our goal is to make sure that the victim is taken care of, that they’re OK and that they understand what’s potentially coming next,” said Sadie Restivo, acting executive director of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape.
When sexual assault victims show up at a hospital in Western Pennsylvania, PAAR counselors are called to assist them.
“I think it’s really important for any victim to understand the risks of not having a professional help you. When you go into a hospital setting, you could have other injuries that need to be assessed. You can have other mental health situations that need to be assessed,” Restivo said.
At-home rape kits have not yet been used in court. But Leda was awarded three contracts with the Air Force to test the idea of using kits on remote military bases.
“Our goal is to be able to get those kits into bases where there might not be a sexual assault nurse examiner there, or it might be many miles to a hospital in order to get any sort of medical care,” Campbell said.
She is also using her platform as Miss Pittsburgh to promote the kits.
“I believe that being a sexual assault survivor and having everything stripped away from me allows me to go into a pageant and show that even though that was stripped away from me unwillingly, I can take that power back and I can be powerful,” Campbell said.
In Pennsylvania, rape tests at a hospital are free of charge for the victim.
Campbell said Leda sells its kits to organizations for about US$10 per person. The cost includes other healthcare services.
The kits are not currently being sold in retail stores.